Cute Kunoichis:Volume1 Chapter4

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Chapter 4[edit]

1: It Refuses to Fade to Sepia[edit]

His final mission had been a lot more complex than most everyone thought. After all, it began with the Shogunate and the Kingdom competing to be the first to kill some terrorists, but eventually ended with him being pursued by both the samurai and knights while he tried to protect a small queen of only 10 years old.

It all started with the queen studying abroad in the Dejima-like New Yokohama Domain.

But a faction that wanted to extend those Dejima-like rules onto the mainland threatened the Shogunate with a letter written using the queen’s forged handwriting and took over a university on the island. However, they failed, their deception was discovered, and they had no choice but to hole up on the campus where the queen happened to be.

That faction was quickly suppressed and it looked like the incident was at an end.

But that was only the beginning.

It came down to a series of truly bizarre events, but the Shogunate’s armored samurai and the Kingdom’s armored knights worked hard to thoroughly slaughter that criminal group with their extraordinary firepower. Like some kind of sick military exercise held in the presence of the queen, they seemed to compete to see who could reduce more enemies to mincemeat as if that would earn her favor. Not only that, but they competed to see who could reach the small queen first and worked to obstruct each other, creating a devastating firefight on what should have been an enemy-less battlefield.

She was, after all, the queen of the Kingdom, one of the world’s most powerful nations.

Despite their isolationist policies, the Shogunate officials wanted a diplomatic contact point, and the Kingdom’s military officials were desperate to earn the distinction of having protected their queen. The samurai and knights below the officials went berserk in their attempt to prove their valor in battle. From top to bottom, it was utter chaos, like a game of ultra-heavyweight beach flags where steel and gunpowder blossomed. They were all supposedly working to protect the queen, but no one there was paying any attention to whether or not their stray shots would hit her or their steel feet would trample her slender body.

You would almost have thought they were more interested in retrieving her corpse – or a small piece of it – and bringing it back to their country for some kind of reward. It was like watching people who so revered the blood and bones of the saints that they started physically grappling over their relics.

And for those who wanted to do the Kingdom a favor to create a solid diplomatic connection, maybe that really was enough.

They all obeyed the righteousness and desire within themselves by grabbing for that soft flag with such strength they were bound to crush the life out of it, but very few actually managed to reach the queen.

From the Kingdom, only a knight named John Kniferidge.

From the Shogunate, only a Hidden One named Sugiyado Souha.

One used extraordinary armor and the other used an extraordinary blade.

When Sugiyado saw that 10-year-old queen in the greatest danger of her life due to so many people working to “rescue” her, why had he decided to intervene in a major world event even if it meant betraying his own country? No, why had he decided to protect that small life?

He could not put to words exactly why the scales of his heart had tilted in that direction.

But he felt it had been worth it.

That close yet distant neighbor had said she loved this country built atop outdated isolationist policies and that she had moved there to study abroad so she could learn more about it. That girl had held such an awkward, immature, and flawed ideal in her heart. But as wild as he had been at the time, he had decided she was worth fighting to protect even if it meant betting his entire life on it.

It had ended in a draw.

He had successfully protected the queen, but he had been stripped of his wings as a result.

Yes, because a true monster had shown itself there.

2: The View from Outside His World[edit]

The sun set and night had fallen, yet a different, irritatingly bright sun had risen to the deck of a tanker anchored out at sea.

“Hello, honored guest!! I hear you have yet again been brought to tears by some lovely ladies. You never change, Mr. Greatest Ninja!! Hah hah!!”

A blond man, who would seem more at home with a soda than tea and who looked more like an American football player than a British gentleman, greeted Sugiyado Souha with booming laughter. He appeared to be wearing a leather jacket over a thick jumpsuit, but that was not technically accurate. It was based off of a flight suit designed to withstand a high-g environment.

Sugiyado sighed.

“You never change either. And thanks for the replacement buttons. The Kingdom’s maids are on a whole other level.”

“Enough flattery. I’ve heard from our Tuxedos how dangerous your kunoichis are.”

The boy showed off his short-sleeved dress shirt with new buttons sewn on.

“Did you cover up the evidence like I asked?”

“Don’t you underestimate my armor. This stuff is so much nicer than those ugly things the cowards in the Shogunate threw together.”

The large blond man winked and tapped some polished armor with the back of his hand. It stood 2 or 3 meters tall. It barely fell into the category of something that was “worn” rather than “piloted” and it was the source of the Kingdom’s high firepower.

That knight’s armor was known as Claiomh Solais.

It was technically categorized as a fortress-class mobile powered suit.

Compared to the samurai’s dinosaur-like combat units, these retained more of a human shape. They were made of beautiful silver armor and a large-caliber railgun designed like a lance. The designers had clearly had some fun with it beyond simply pursuing practicality. It was said that many other countries would attack Japan in order to steal the isolationist country’s technology, but some were better at it than others. The Kingdom was five or even ten steps ahead of everyone else in this particular field.

Although their biggest flaw was the purely military focus of their technology that gave them nothing to give back to the people.

This ship looked like a rundown tanker, but it was actually a disguised carrier ship for this one device.

The other machines standing further back where unmanned musketeers connected to the knight with a datalink, so this was quite the reception.

“As requested, I used this bad boy to scrub that stock exchange’s roof clean, like I was scratching off a lottery ticket. They’ll assume I killed that armored samurai and you will be considered missing in action.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine! I was excited being deployed to the Far East, but I didn’t have much to do here. Now if I’m being honest, I would have loved to continue enjoying this ocean cruise while getting to know the maids better, but if I don’t show some results every once in a while, they’ll send one of those damn inspectors here. In that sense, I should be thanking you. The honor of killing a samurai was exactly what I needed, so don’t worry about it.” John laughed. “Oh, right. You should really speak with Queen Violia about this later. I’ll prepare a secure line for you. If you don’t explain what really happened, I might just be charged with the crime of killing an honored guest.”

“Oh, god. Not that little thing.”

“She’s not so little anymore; her figure is starting to fill out. And in exchange, she seems awfully irritable once a month. Now, I don’t know what her exact cycle is, so you just need to pray you aren’t catching her at that time of month today.”

Once inside the tanker’s pilothouse, they used a satellite link to call up “that little thing” who was finally developing secondary sex characteristics. Once she heard what the Asian had to say, she puffed out her soft-looking cheeks.

“How could they do such a thing? This might just mean war.”

“No. No, it does not. What happened to that transfer student who advocated love and peace?”

“Anyone would give up on that after being pursued by a true monster like you Hidden Ones. Besides, I think it was what you two did that helped me mature most of all.”

The footage was unsteady, so she must have been walking around while holding a phone or tablet. She wore a fancy, shoulder-baring dress with a long skirt that spread out like an umbrella and she cheekily held the camera overhead to maintain her best angle.

“I’m acting based on careful thought here, so please don’t make a mess of my plans by wielding the long arm of a powerful nation,” said Sugiyado. “That will just mean another mess I have to clean up in secret.”

“Says the person who essentially rummaged through the armor decorating my mansion’s lobby. Still, I never thought that I would be hearing more about that incident now, even if it did create an eternal bond between us.”

“Yeah, neither did I.”

“Also, I never knew there was more to that incident we weren’t aware of. It feels like it sullies what I thought was our own lovely story. Yes, war is sounding better all the time. Maybe I should bring down that broadcast tower, the…New Yokohama Aeromonolith, was it?”

“Did I choose the wrong way to solve that problem back then!? Is this some form of delayed divine punishment!?”

He could not help but look fondly back on “that little thing” who had tugged on his clothes and called him “Nii-sama” based on some weird interpretation of Japanese culture she had picked up somewhere.

“Also, why are you so full of energy? There’s a time difference of more than 10 hours between our countries, so what are you doing up and moving around?”

“Oh, nothing. I just have somewhere I need to be, you silly fool.”

“Hm? Wait, please tell me I’m just being paranoid!”

She told him no such thing.

“I’m right heeeere☆”

Small arms hugged him from behind.

He had never expected her to make a surprise visit to the front line of the technological conflict between armored samurai and armored knights.

“I detected the repulsive odor of a dangerous conspiracy much like back then, so I decided to take a quick trip halfway around the globe with a ramjet engine. You should really praise me for being so worried for your wellbeing.”

Sugiyado Souha snapped not at the head of state but at her bodyguard knight.

“Are you insane!? Wipe that grin off your face!! Have you completely forgotten what happened in this country just a few years ago!?”

“Like I had a choice. The Kingdom is an absolute monarchy that believes in the divine right of kings. Parliament is just for show, so if the true head of the nation says to do something, then you’re playing strip rock-paper-scissors, dancing in the nude, or doing whatever else she asked of you. In this case, I had to put together and host a ninja tour for her.”

“Hey, honored guest, the queen of an entire country has risked her life to come play with you, so stop being shy,” said the queen in question. “Shouldn’t you be crumpling up your face and turning on the waterworks?”

“Oh, god. You really have changed, haven’t you!?”

“What, did you like me better the way I was? If you weren’t an honored guest, I would be pinching my skirt and stomping on you for that lack of decorum, but have it your way. I am prepared to comply with your perverted demands, Nii-sama.”

“Oh, shut up! Why don’t you realize that’s the problem right there!?”

He made the queen laugh while she intentionally peered up at him from below – which meant she was giving him a glimpse of her growing chest. When he shouted back at her to avoid some dishonorable false charges, something fell out of his pocket.

It was a long, skinny snack food wrapped like a piece of hard candy.

“Hm? What is this? …E-extra-hard Happy Churn???”

It truly was a stupendous product. He had snuck a few into his pocket when he saw an opening, but they had actually retained their beautiful oblong shape without breaking during all that intense fighting. Bravo, Happy Churn. They had not abandoned this ninja.

“Hold on, honored guest,” cut in John. “Do you have any idea how risky it was to bring unbreakable, and thus portable, Happy Churn out to sea like this!? Did you sell your soul to the devil on Dejima!? Is this really safe!? Gulp.”

“N-now, now. I am a forgiving queen, so if a commoner is offering me a gift, I would be willing to accept it to further our diplomatic and personal bonds. So hand it over. Yes, hand it over. (Glance, glance)”

“N-no, this isn’t a gift!”

Sugiyado tried to argue his case, but no one was listening.

He was saved by the disguised carrier ship’s communications technician.

The man pressed one side of the headphones to one ear as he turned back toward them. His gaze was on John instead of the little girl, so he may have decided it would be rude to speak directly to the queen without going through his superior officer first.

“We have received a report, Count. We have intercepted a radio transmission from the New Yokohama artificial island. After decrypting it, we found some information related to the honored guest.”

“Provide a summary.”

“Yes, sir.”

After speaking that word which carried a different weight when directed at a noble with a real court rank, the communications technician did as requested.

“Four ninjas who deserted from the local military have acquired some information at the New Yokohama Stock Exchange. They appear to be using that classified data to make some kind of deal with the higher ups. It is effectively blackmail.”

Sugiyado slapped a hand against his forehead.

“I warn them so much and those morons still feel the need to open that can of worms!?”

Now the Shogunate would be unable to back down even if they wanted to. They would be unable to rest until they had caught up to Kuhou Ouka, Hanasawa Bara, Nantou Hoozuki, and Shizukuma Asagao and received their four heads on a platter.

Worse, this blackmail method meant they had ultimately failed to extract the shogunate data they had wanted from that stock exchange server. At most, they had found the proverbial lizard’s tail of that final mission. In poker terms, this was a bluff meant to apply pressure to an opponent. Yet they had placed their own lives on the scales in the process.

And it was all just so they could reclaim Sugiyado Souha’s life.

They had no proof at all that he was still alive, but they clung to the hope that he was and continued down the hopeless bloody path they had set for themselves.

“Could they be any more stupid!?”

“Don’t say that. This shows how much they care about you. Enough to trust for no reason that you would never die.” John chuckled and casually slapped Sugiyado’s shoulder. “We have been monitoring the situation ourselves. First the theft of a modular nuclear reactor, then the abduction of a dollhouse idol, and finally hacking into the mainframe of a stock exchange. Each of them was a shocking enough case to leave its mark in the annals of crime, yet they impressively harmed zero people in the process. They’re going out of their way to preserve your reputation. There were countless easier ways to go about this, but they intentionally restricted themselves and took the long way around. All to prove that you made no mistake when training them.”

“…”

He was briefly unsure how to respond to that.

He was weak, so he ultimately dodged the issue by focusing on the job at hand.

“But the Shogunate is bound to pick up on that soon. The profilers will have noticed how blatantly they’re avoiding any casualties.”

“Probably so. So do you think they’ll go for that method next time, or maybe the time after that?”

The little girl clinging to Sugiyado’s hip pouted her lips at that.

“The Shogunate, huh? I guess declaring war would be going too far, but maybe I should load John up with bombs and send him for a pleasant cruise above their capital. The pressure might be enough to slow down their reaction speed.”

“They might decide to settle their domestic issues ASAP so they can focus on the Kingdom instead. Violia, your presence is a little too powerful to use as a wakeup call. Anything you did would make predicting their next action nigh impossible, so please stay put.”

“Boo.”

“Please, Your Majesty.”

He patted her head while she clung to the side of his hip and then he spoke to the communication technician.

“Excuse me, mister. If possible, could you provide the details of the deal my idiot students are trying to work out?”

“Yes, sir, honored guest. The local military set up the details. They will meet in the B3 indoor plaza of New Yokohama Station’s Combined Underground Mall at 7:30 tonight. All further details will be discussed then.”

“That’s less than half an hour from now.”

“Plus, this is the evening rush hour. The station is sure to be flooded with businessmen headed home from work.”

That just about settled it. Just as John had suggested, the Shogunate intended to use that method. Ouka’s group would be wiped out with no hope of defending themselves. It was not an issue of skill – their un-ninja-like warmth would trip them up.

“But I doubt Guren or Suiren would choose to do that.”

“I have a report for our honored guest. The local military on New Yokohama artificial island appears to be sending out two sets of orders. It is extremely likely that they are commanding an official unit and another unit behind the scenes.”

“So they plan to leave Guren and Suiren in the dark and let them die along with Ouka’s group? All so they can end this as quickly as possible!?”

The queen tilted her head while clinging to Sugiyado’s hip.

“Um, what exactly is the problem here?”

“Ouka’s group is not willing to take innocent lives for their objective. That much is clear from their past actions,” spat out Sugiyado. Even he had killed that armored samurai to silence him and to help Shirazaya Guren and Suiren. “So the Shogunate only has to release poison gas or a biological weapon inside the station building during the evening rush hour. Even if Ouka’s group could escape on their own, they’re bound to stop and try to help the suffering people. They’ll know saving all of them is a futile task, but they’ll still draw out every last ounce of strength from their dying bodies to save as many as possible. Goddammit!!”

3: The Boy who Watered the Girl’s Seed[edit]

She had run out of time.

That was what had led Shizukuma Asagao to enter the ninja world.

In this age, everything was a meritocracy. If you had the knowledge and skills, you could skip ahead in school or even go straight to work, but that made things all the rougher for those who could not keep up. Simply studying the core subjects and going to college was not enough to get you anywhere. This was apparently the natural result of needing to secure a working population in an isolationist nation that refused to accept foreign laborers, but Asagao did not have a good feel for the specifics of the issue.

She had always grown bored with things quickly and never stuck with anything for long.

She had been something of a prodigy, but everyone was inundated with information these days. Even if you won an award or three, you were quickly forgotten by the general public.

And with a poor connection to her family, she had been cut off from the internal cycle as well.

Unable to accomplish anything, she had let time pass until the meritocracy’s time limit had arrived.

The public institutions required her to choose further education or a job.

Either way, she would be working for the nation’s benefit. The Shogunate officials had kicked her out of the room she had optimized for a lazy life and she had been more or less forced out into the world.

“That’s a real shame. If you had worked up your courage and spoken with your parents first, they might have been willing to help you out.”

If she had not met Sugiyado Souha then – albeit over the internet – her young mind may have been diluted and washed away by the great ocean out there.

“Well, maybe we ran into each other for a reason. I’ll teach you how to get by. Although this will be like teaching a sunflower how to survive in the shade.”

After so long without any human interaction, her tongue had grown rusty. She had found it hard to speak with anyone even through a screen. At the time, she had even had trouble judging how to approach her parents and convey her thoughts to them without introducing misunderstandings, but Sugiyado Souha had been patient with her. Even though someone on his level could easily have ended the remote interview and chosen a more talented candidate.

Why are you doing so much for me?

Her words had come out in intermittent bursts and she had been unsure if she was successfully communicating her question, but he had answered her all the same.

“No real reason. I chose you because you have your own unique charm. Well, just take your time and you’ll come to realize the world isn’t as apathetic to you as you think.”

He had allowed her a connection. He had said she had her own unique charm. It had been no more than a casual comment for him.

But it had definitely saved her.

Strangely, she had not grown bored of following him. Not all of it had been fun – if anything, he had been a strict teacher – but she had never once complained. She had shown no talent in direct combat wielding a sword or shuriken, but she had not given up after finding something she could not do for the first time in her life. She had instead asked herself what she could do and she had worked hard to hold her ground. She had learned how to dig in her heels and stick with something.

When he had given her the new name of Asagao, she had thought it did not suit her.[1]

But he had told her to start with the name and learn to become a bright flower who could smile with anyone. She had realized it was not about if the name suited her now; it was about becoming someone who the name did suit.

Once she realized his thoughts behind that, she had come to understand something else too.

She found she was capable of grasping other people’s feeling. She no longer had trouble judging her distance from them. The rust had fallen from her tongue and lips. She could approach people the way everyone else did.

He was not as close to her as her parents, but he was not as distant as an adult.

Yes, so that small girl had started to think of him like a big brother.

“Okay.”

The bob cut girl slapped her extremely small face between the hands sticking out from her baggy sleeves to refocus herself.

“I refuse to believe that was enough to kill him.”

And she gave a smile that suited her name.

“Wait for us, Sensei. We’ll save you.”

4: PCB9[edit]

New Yokohama Domain had a few subway lines in addition to the major terminal station that connected to the giant bridge back to the mainland. The closer subway stations were linked to the large terminal station by underground corridors and plenty of shops had been built along those corridors. That meant the city sat above several subway stations linked on a scale and with a complexity beyond the norm. Some likened it to a house of tricks and it was a hotbed for rumors, like that it hid a secret nuclear shelter or a pure water pool for particle observation.

But there was one thing the people were unaware of.

The entire vast underground mall shared an air conditioning system, so infecting just one duct could quickly make the entire facility deadly. The civilians innocently believed they were being protected, so they never would have imagined the Shogunate might expose them to a biological weapon along with a rebellious criminal.

“!!”

After returning to New Yokohama Domain, Sugiyado Souha hid his mouth behind the largish scarf that helped block facial recognition before he ran through the city night and descended into one of the giant underground mall’s more than 30 entrances.

His earphone produced the concerned voice of John, an outsider. He was virtually sharing the boy’s eyes using his phone’s camera.

“H-hey, are you sure you don’t need any backup!? We’re talking about 200,000 people taken hostage! The queen has given me permission to join the fight, so wouldn’t it be best if you had some help?”

“Were you planning to charge into a crowded subway station during rush hour while wearing that huge thing? The Shogunate is hell bent on killing Ouka’s group to hide their secret. They’re willing to kill 200,000 innocent people and their own colleagues like Guren and Suiren to do it!”

“Don’t you have a bad feeling about this? It reminds me too much of what happened back then. I can’t get a read on anything and I can’t predict anything!”

“I’m saying they might flip the switch the instant they see someone as conspicuous as you there. So just sit tight and keep an eye on things from out there!!”

“I get it, goddammit! But don’t forget that you’re not alone. We’re on your side!!”

He did not respond to that one.

Because he was afraid trying to speak would let out a breath matching the shape of the smile on his lips.

That final mission had been hell, but maybe he had gained something from it.

(Now, then.)

The giant underground mall was like one big box, making it perfect for converting into a gas chamber. Since the air conditioning system was shared, infecting one duct would kill everyone there.

But it was not all bad. Risks and negatives were all in how you viewed them.

And ninjas lived in a different world from samurai and knights. More often than not, they were given infiltration and disturbance jobs while at a disadvantage. If your side had the upper hand to begin with, no one would turn to those who lurked in the shadows in the first place.

(This tells me the villain will only be after a single location. That means I won’t have to run all over this labyrinthine station disarming countless devices!)

“By the way, do you have any guesses what they will be using?” asked the queen over his earphone.

“PCB9. A toxic substance related to vision and the liver had its components pharmaceutically enhanced to create a colorless but strong-smelling poison gas weapon. The Shogunate officially stores 0mg of it, but they abuse a loophole in the various treaties by maintaining a lab that can manufacture it at any time. The actual ingredients are as common as can be and thus very cheap, so there is no concern of anyone detecting anything when they begin producing some. It has a death rate of about 55.8%. Once it gets inside an organism and accumulates, there is no hope of saving them but they will not die right away. Their liver function will drop over the course of a month and they can only lie around suffering until they finally breathe their last.”

It might sound like the other half would survive, but that was only technically true. Even if you were lucky enough to survive, you would face a life of hellish after effects. You would be bedridden forevermore and – to make matters worse – no one would suspect a thing if someone injected you with something in the hospital and your condition took a turn for the worse.

“I-I didn’t really expect you to have an answer. What makes you think they are using that?”

“First, I compared the candidates to the temperature, humidity, level of dust and other impurities in the air, expected distribution range, and other conditions of this particular attack. There were other poison gasses and biological weapons that fit the conditions, but like I said before, those would all be detected by foreign agencies while the Shogunate prepared them. There is no chance the Tuxedos of a #1 enemy state like the Kingdom would overlook it. Plus, PCB9 gives them an advantage when it comes to controlling the spread of the damage. There is no way to actually eliminate it, but since it accumulates in the fat, you can place animal fat along the borderline and have it soak up the toxin like a deodorizer. Without a safety measure like that, they would never use a chemical weapon in the middle of a city of a million, even if it’s separated from the mainland by the sea.”

“You make this all sound so simple, but that means you have the specs for hundreds or even thousands of poison gasses and viruses memorized, doesn’t it? You scare me sometimes.”

John kept a somewhat exasperated tone, but Sugiyado had to focus on his job right now.

There was only one possible target.

(The underground mall’s central heating.)

In order to cut down on energy usage, the underground mall did not install an air conditioner in each individual room. Instead, it used a single giant unit that sent air to the rest of the facility through ducts. Air was taken in through the many intake vents on the surface and it all passed through central heating before separating back out to the rest of the facility.

It was similar to the neck of an hourglass. If that one point was contaminated, everything else would be wiped out.

The central heating room’s location was not revealed to the public. Needless to say, that was because the normal visitors did not need to go there.

(But you can make a pretty good guess based on the layout and density of the ducts on the ceiling.)

“Oops.”

Just before running up some stairs, he came to a stop and faced a nearby drink vending machine.

Up ahead in the crowd, he had seen a pair of blonde twins in white dresses with red and white hair extensions swaying as they walked. Shirazaya Guren held a hand to her throat and Suiren toyed with her right ear. They appeared to be on their way to make a deal with Kuhou Ouka’s group. Sugiyado was officially missing in action, so running into them would cause problems he did not have time to deal with.

“Can’t you hide better than that?” asked Queen Violia who was artificially sharing his eyes using his phone. “Wouldn’t you be safer behind one of those columns?”

“That would make me more conspicuous. The crowd is the greatest form of cover, so as long as I don’t do anything suspicious, I can just go with the flow.”

Based on the duct layout, he was less than 50m from the central heating. He could already see the metal door labeled staff only that had a keypad next to the knob.

At times like this, he could not use smart cards that left a purchase record, but outdated methods had their advantages. He pulled his wallet from the pocket of his loose pants, inserted a few coins, and pushed the button for a soda while continuing his observations.

“They are pros too, aren’t they?” asked the queen. “Are you sure they will overlook you?”

“If you give up and turn around when the gap between buildings is too far to jump, you aren’t cut out to be a ninja. A pro will bring a rope or ladder with them to cross it.”

He crouched down and retrieved the can from the machine, but instead of standing back up, he gently rolled the unopened can below the machine. Finally, he nonchalantly stood back up and started following the flow of foot traffic.

“Nii-sama, they’re going to find you!”

“No, they aren’t.”

Vending machines used a lot of electricity since they had to keep so many products either heated or cooled. The large fan used to rid the machine of its heat would produce a fair amount of heat itself, so it was generally placed where no one would see it but also in an outwards-facing position where the air could cool it.

Also, canned drinks – especially carbonated ones – would explode when overheated.

So what would happen if an unopened can was lodged up against the motor attached below the vending machine to turn the fan?

He heard a muffled and wet boom.

“?”

“Over there.”

He only had to get both sisters to look in a certain direction. Similar to pressing against the opposite side of a revolving door, he slipped past the twins in military-looking white dresses while staying only a few meters behind them.

This was an underground mall full of people, not a strictly-guarded fortress. There might be trouble here, but it would not raise the alert level unless it could be proven to be related to their job. There was more to being a ninja than wielding swords and shurikens in stealthy battles.

There was now no one between him and the staff-only door to the central heating.

In his short-sleeved dress shirt and loose pants, he casually held a hand to his earphone.

“At close range, they might detect my transmissions. You won’t hear anything from me once I go inside, but don’t panic.”

“Got it. We will be using a different route to monitor things.”

(This is NR East, so all the extra locks are done by Saitou Security. This model looks like a 34-B, so I need a direct link to the red and yellow.)

There might as well not have been a lock. Anyone who encountered a keypad and tried to search out the correct series of digits was not cut out to be a ninja. He pulled a Fierce Fang from his back, stuck the tip in the gap between the keypad and the door, used leverage to break it open, connected the internal wires to his phone, and forced open the electronic lock. It only took him three seconds, so it did not even look like he was standing there working on something.

“…”

He cracked open the door and slipped inside. The room beyond was dark and full of traps. Not even he could directly see IR lasers, but he could see the stamp-sized mirrors attached all over.

Several pieces of machinery were surrounded by metal fences and thick pipes connected them together. The central heating maintenance hallway was like a spider web woven of unseen light. Touching even one strand would inform the villain of his presence. That might even lead them to hasten their timetable and use the PCB9 poison gas weapon right away.

But on the other hand, the lasers controlled by those mirrors could only travel in straight lines. If he read the angles of the mirrors, he could tell which way the lasers were being reflected.

“Sh.”

He let out a light breath and performed an acrobatic flip. His largish scarf fluttered after him as he sometimes jumped and sometimes rolled to dance nimbly through the invisible spider web without making a noise.

(Setting it up to distribute the gas wouldn’t take long, so a trap of this scale suggests they were ordered to wait here until receiving the go-ahead.)

Once inside, he sensed a presence.

In his short-sleeved dress shirt and loose pants, Sugiyado pressed up against a piece of metal larger than a small truck and viewed the scene further in. He already held a Fierce Fang in his hand.

“…”

There was indeed someone there.

That someone was curled up with their back to him and they wore a hooded coat. They were small, but he could not tell if they were a boy or a girl.

The rectangular maintenance hatch for the central heating was located nearly at the floor on the wall and the screws in the four corners had been removed to pop off the cover. A metal cylinder the size of a 2L drink bottle stuck out of the attaché case next to the hatch. It did not have any obvious labels, but that had to be it. Once the valve was opened either based on a timer or a remote signal, the PCB9 would enter the duct and spread throughout the entire underground mall. That would infect the 200,000 ordinary people using the multiple subway stations, the twin sisters Guren and Suiren, as well as Kuhou Ouka, Hanasawa Bara, Nantou Hoozuki, and Shizukuma Asagao.

He had no detailed information about the dissemination container.

If it was triggered with the movement of a fingertip or of the eyes, then throwing a single Fierce Fang would be a risky gamble. How could he safely eliminate this enemy? How could he switch off their life without letting them scream or even dilate their pupils? His ability to rationally analyze this showed that, as much as he cared for those on his side, he could never work as a guardian of the law or ally of the people who worked out in the open. And that was fine with him. He remained behind cover and wracked his brain, but then he heard a familiar voice.

It came from the radio sitting next to the enemy.

He realized the building layout showed the meetup point for the deal being directly below this central heating room. PCB9 was colorless but had a distinctive odor, so it was not difficult for people to realize something was wrong. Had this enemy set up a bug or camera so they could wait until the four kunoichis were too deep in to escape once the attack was triggered?

He doubted this was simply insurance in case Guren and Suiren lost. There was no hesitation or concern in the posture of that figure with their back turned. They clearly intended to use this no matter what.

He focused on the voices coming from the radio.

They most likely belonged to Kuhou Ouka and Shirazaya Guren.

Or maybe it was Suiren.

“The Shogunate’s dogs actually bothered to show up to talk it out? They must really not want the data on that storage to get out.”

“Sigh. He sounded so confident, so why does none of this have anything to do with the mint’s printing press? And let’s not get carried away. The higher ups told us what is going on here. Given the encryption method used, it would take 30 years to crack even using all the country’s supercomputers connected in parallel over high-speed lines. Maybe you did fish up a sunken ship, but you did not know how to unlock the treasure chest within. So you decided to threaten us to learn what was inside. Isn’t that right?”

“If you were that confidant we couldn’t get in, you wouldn’t have responded to our request for negotiations. The Shogunate is scared. Maybe all this country’s supercomputers can’t crack it open, but what if we took it to another country? What if we handed this over to the Kingdom waiting out at sea and in the air? Whatever their overall technology level, they should have an overwhelming lead when it comes to population and manpower. And thus the total number of computers they can use in parallel.”

“If you had any such connections, you would not have made this kind of demand in the first place.”

“Oh, really? But if we need connections, we can always make new ones. Remember, kunoichis like us excel at both combat and manipulating people.”

Sugiyado silently graded that a 60. Inspiring emotions in someone was indeed a ninja technique, but to do that, Ouka would first have to know what emotions she needed to draw out in order to succeed.

If she was only making her opponent angry because they could not perform at their best after losing their cool, then she was still unsure what she wanted to do here. Doing that could give your opponent the opening they needed to manipulate you instead.

“Hee hee.”

“Is something funny?”

“Oh, just that you don’t seem to have heard anything at all. I imagine it was Sugiyado Souha who taught you to act like that. If so, he might just be charged with criminal instigation, or maybe even as the mastermind behind it all.”

“He was retried and you’re the ones that dragged him back into it all!!”

If he were not so close to the enemy, he might have clicked his tongue. In a single move, the twin had turned everything around quite impressively. She must have known about Ouka’s psychological weak point from the beginning.

“He told us you were after the mint’s printing press, but this changes everything. Sugiyado Souha’s students were acting on his behalf to restore his honor. If we view this as an act of the Sugiyado Ninja School, there isn’t much room to defend him, is there?”

“You couldn’t even protect him.”

“?”

“You used him for your own purposes and then abandoned him to that tragedy on the rooftop! Listen, if anything did happen to him, I swear I’ll use that modular nuclear reactor to blow up the Tenshukaku, the very center of the Shogunate!!”

“Oh, you seem awfully shaken for someone making such a bold threat. You fear he could never have survived that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I get it all right. I get that leaving our precious teacher with coldhearted monsters like you will only get him used like a tool and then thrown out. And I get that you could never understand how we feel!!”

“What did you just say?”

The tides were turning.

Don’t get all heated up when you’re the host, thought Sugiyado with a cringe at the twin’s reaction.

“We used him like a tool and threw him out? We did nothing of the sort!! We have a duty to treat our cooperators right. Once we take them onto our team, we treat them like family and we rely on each other! So we could see just how much pressure your actions were placing on his shoulders. Yet he still never made a single complaint. He carried it all himself, wearing himself down in the process. All because you felt the need to cause trouble!!”

“Enough. Bara, Hoozuki, prepare for battle. Asagao, you provide support. We’ll kick their asses and swipe the answer from their pocket!”

“Now we’re talking. It seems neither of us actually suspect he is dead, so we must arrest you and reclaim the life he had. Suiren!!”

But he could not bring himself to outright reject what they were saying.

On one side, Kuhou Ouka, Hanasawa Bara, Nantou Hoozuki, and Shizukuma Asagao.

On the other, Shirazaya Guren and Suiren.

They were willing to speak from the heart when it came to him and even grab their weapons despite knowing that was not the smartest move. He reflected deeply on the fact that he was blessed with so many people like that.

How could he let them die here?

He no longer cared about reclaiming his honor. He had no desire he was willing to trample someone else to fulfill. But this was different. He swore to himself he would protect these girls who were standing up and crossing blades for him.

The villain had heard all of this as well, and they held a hand to their ear while still curled up. They were probably contacting someone with their earphone. They must have received some kind of sign because their back shook a bit, as if in laughter.

“Heh.”

A moment later, Sugiyado Souha threw three Fierce Fang air-pressure kunais toward that back.

One toward the back of the head, one toward the spine, and one toward the heart.

All three targets showed no mercy. No matter how dangerous this person in the hooded coat was, this was guaranteed to pierce their vitals. The power of nitrogen would produce 15 tons of pressure to shred whatever the kunais had embedded themselves in.

He revealed his skill in the modern ninja techniques known as Strategic Martial Arts, which had been developed to fight the foreign elites arriving by air and by sea.

Or it looked like he had.

The coat should have been reduced to shreds, yet it flew intact through the air. And the supposedly slain target was not bleeding at all. The scar on Sugiyado’s nose bent.

(A substitution!?)

The torn coat remained upright and seemingly filled with a body, so it was likely made with shape memory alloy, a high-polymer water-absorbing gel, or electric potential elastic fibers.

To fool an extraordinary Hidden One so fully meant this had to be at least a High Ninja, if not even higher than that.

He heard a footstep from overhead.

They were dropping rapidly toward him.

But his immediate reaction was not toward the attacker from above. It was toward the central heating machinery surrounding him.

If the PCB9 container was unsealed and the gas entered the ducts through the opened maintenance hatch, 200,000 people would be infected. And his students and the twins were part of that number.

So he did not need to think twice.

“!!”

He spun around in a breath.

He threw more than five Fierce Fangs in all directions and used the nitrogen to critically spread apart and destroy the wiring, circuit boards, and other Achilles’ heels of the facility. Bright sparks erupted all over and the machinery fell silent.

But he did not have time to observe his handiwork.

He had neglected the assassin directly above him and it was too late to react now. He rolled blindly to the side, but he still felt scorching pain across his back. Something had cut him through his short-sleeved dress shirt. The wound was shallow, but undeniable.

Blood dripped to the floor.

He grimaced at that fact more than the pain. Just like with the air-pressure kunais he had thrown, he had to update his mental list of evidence he would have to erase.

At the same time, he heard a noise similar to compressed air bursting out. He saw the sides of the large metal cylinder peel away to reveal small holes in something like a polka dot pattern.

Something colorless floated out like sugar being stirred into water, but it showed no sign of being absorbed into the boxy duct. He had just barely stopped the central heating in time.

“Not bad.”

That quick comment came from someone standing about 5m ahead of him. They wore a black leather suit and an octopus-like gasmask that covered their face. Their gender was still a mystery. The long brown hair and curvy figure made him think girl, but in this world, he could not deny the possibility of them having padding within the leather suit.

That meant he had no idea who this was.

He did not recognize them and nothing looked familiar.

But that did not speak poorly of their skills. In fact, being unknown was a status symbol in the ninja world. The “legendary ninjas” like Hattori or Kirigakure, who were famous enough to be answers on TV quiz shows, were usually ninjas who had lost their ability to fight and had the Shogunate sell off their personal information. Meanwhile, the unknown ninjas were the ones the Shogunate wanted to keep hidden. It may have been similar to the difference between Elite Ninjas like Ouka’s group who stood at the top of the ranking but whose total numbers were known and the Hidden Ones like Sugiyado Souha whose numbers were a mystery.

Did that mean this was another Hidden One?

Or was there some other exceptional category other than that?

Either way, they were top rate.

And this was the hellish front line where the extraordinary could be found anywhere. This was not a training facility where the difficulty was adjusted to an amateur’s level. Whoever this was, he had to fight them now that they had encountered each other.

“But are you sure that was a good idea? All you did was transfer the PCB9 from a big box to a smaller one. There’s no hope for you without a mask like this one. Was this really worth getting sliced up by my Piercing Web?”

“That is for me to decide,” spat out Sugiyado while pulling another Fierce Fang from the back of his torn and red-stained shirt.

This would soon be a world carrying a silent 55.8% chance of death. He would be fighting a deadly battle while also sharing a room with an invisible grim reaper.

5: A Battle Outside the Ranking System[edit]

To be entirely clear, the faceless ninja’s goal was not to drive back Sugiyado Souha and escape safely.

He or she needed to eliminate Kuhou Ouka and the other three on the floor below. Even if that meant putting Shirazaya Guren, Suiren, and 200,000 ordinary people in harm’s way.

So…

(I stopped the central heating, but largescale infrastructure like this is bound to have backup power. At this rate, it will turn back on and ruin everything!!)

That was the focal point of this battle.

They had to run around the large but labyrinthine central heating room while one tried to turn the power back on and the other tried to take out the backup power as well. Whoever achieved their goal first would win.

“Heh heh.”

A muffled laugh left the gasmask.

Something crawled behind them.

A moment later, Sugiyado Souha ducked his head while running. Something sliced by directly overhead and a straight diagonal line of sparks flew along the thick metal machinery next to him.

(A wire?)

His instincts told him that.

This was someone skilled enough to pull off a substitution technique by filling their coat with shape memory alloy, a high-polymer water-absorbing gel, or electric potential elastic fibers.

But his knowledge rejected that idea.

The gasmask ninja was being too careless about their own route for this place to be laid out with taut wires. Running the way they were would have gotten them tangled up in no time.

Then what was this trap strung up across the room? Steel wires too thin to see with the naked eye would be the most obvious solution, yet all he saw were…

Light and mirrors.

In other words…

“Is your Piercing Web made from laser scalpels and ultra-fine heat-resistant optical fiber!?”

As soon as he figured it out, the storm of invisible blades rushed toward him from all directions.

Several laser emitters extended from their back like octopus or squid tentacles to aim freely in any direction around them. And if these were little more than ordinary laser scalpels, they could be reflected like normal with high luminance mirrors. Yet these were still surgical tools. If they targeted the thick blood vessels in the limbs or neck, they could slice through them as easily as a normal blade, leading to heavy blood loss.

(No, I bet this was originally anti-electronic warfare equipment that overheated the ninja outfits that protect their wearer using their spider silk structure and computer-controlled adjustments.)

Cutting-edge ninja outfits could shrug off exposure to some flames, but if the heat was focused on a single point, it might be enough to destroy the computer chips.

Sugiyado could not see the IR beams.

And even if he could, his body could not keep up with a weapon that approached at the speed of light.

Unlike a normal wire, these could be switched on and off, so this enemy could move around freely without having to worry about being caught in their own trap.

That left Sugiyado with only his knowledge as the key to this fight.

He would have to read the position and angles of the laser emitters and the mirrors to predict the reflected path of the Piercing Web and dodge based on that.

“You’re pretty good!”

He did not need to respond to that praise. The two of them continued running while he threw a Fierce Fang.

Sparks immediately flew.

A laser sweeping through the air had hit the polished side of the air-pressure kunai and it had been reflected wildly. The gasmask ninja had not seen this coming, so they shrank down a bit.

It had taken more than the sparkle of the blade to do that.

The nitrogen gas used to open the kunai had locally altered the composition of the air and distorted the transmittance.

“Tch!!”

Meanwhile, Sugiyado threw a few Fierce Fangs in directions other than the gasmask ninja and used the nitrogen’s 15 tons of force to sever the wiring for the central heating’s backup power. He had remained focused on his objective. He had worked to stop the PCB9 more than ensure his own safety.

“You did that in your spare time!?”

“By the way,” he cut in. “The central heating is a very large piece of infrastructure used to manage the temperature of the entire giant underground mall. How exactly do you think it manages that?”

He changed direction and threw an air-pressure kunai to the side, still ignoring the gasmask ninja whose tentacle-like weapons were moving behind their back.

And he gave his answer.

“By consuming a hell of a lot of fuel.”

A mass of metal to his side suddenly swelled out and exploded, sending jagged metal and flames toward the gasmask ninja.

The damage to all the equipment and pipes must have allowed the central heating’s fuel to leak out.

“Aaaagh!?”

The gasmask ninja was blasted to the metal fence on the other side of the room, but Sugiyado was not going to let them escape now. He grabbed a new Fierce Fang in each hand and used the dark smoke to rush toward his target unseen.

He jabbed the tip of one Fierce Fang below their chin and pulled up to pry the gasmask from their face.

Based on his first impression of their face, this appeared to be a beautiful boy. So was the figure showing through the leather suit faked using padding?

“!?”

The assassin’s entire body visibly tensed. After all, this area was infected with his own poison gas. Even a faceless ninja would feel their throat go dry with fear.

Sugiyado hoped this would be enough to stop him.

But when he instead saw one of the tentacles moving behind the boy, he immediately stabbed his two air-pressure kunais into the side and chest of the leather suit.

“Obh!? Ugweehhhhh!!”

“Quit exaggerating. If that’s government issue, it’s spider silk and can stop a rifle bullet. But if you insist, I can open it up with my kunai’s nitrogen. Open your body up, that is. I’m honestly having trouble figuring out why I shouldn’t.”

Of course, even if the bullet could not pierce the suit, it could not fully absorb the shock and that would hit the body within.

Perhaps it was like pressing a flat-ended ruler against your stomach and trying to place your full weight on it.

“Kah, cough, cough!!”

Unable to bear it, the ninja slid down onto his butt while still leaning back against the fence.

“Th-there’s something wrong with you. This is PCB9. At your level, you must know what it can do! Breath it in and your liver stops functioning. Except it takes a full month while you watch all your skin turn yellow! How is this not freaking you the hell out!?”

“If panicking could change the reality around you, I would become a shaman who can enter trances at will.” Sugiyado sighed. “PCB9 generally enters through the mouth and gathers in your fat before the negative effects spread to your eyes and liver. So as long as you do something about the breathing part, you can survive. Just like you tried to protect yourself with that gasmask.”

“Yeah, but you destroyed-” The assassin stopped midsentence. “Hold on. You’re kidding, right?”

“I will only explain this once, so if you want to live, work your brain cells overtime to learn how to breathe. Got that?”

“What’s your price? I know you’re not going to save an enemy for nothing in return! Tell me!!”

“You will be telling me everything you know about the backup plan in case this one fails. Now, if you want to die that badly, you can pay me up front, but are you sure you want to delay this any longer?”


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  1. Asagao is the Japanese name of the morning glory flower.